Chile provides some of the best wine values today; Carménère is Chile’s signature grape.
The name comes from French for “crimson”—referencing the grape’s deep color and wine produced. Pronunciation guides conflict, majority favor “car-men-AIR.”
One of Bordeaux’s six noble grapes, Carménère traces lineage to Roman times, when it was “Biturica”—Bordeaux’s name back in the day.
Phylloxera virtually wiped out Carménère in France in 1867. Fortunately, like its cousin Malbec, Carménère found a home in South America.
Several Chilean Andes valleys have warm summer days followed by 40-degree temperature drops at night: perfect for evoking Carménère excellence.
For many years, Chilean winemakers mistook Carménère for Merlot. Most vineyards were a mix of the two; they resemble each other but mature at different times. The resulting field blend gave Chilean wines a mediocre reputation. Scientists sorted it out in the 1990s, and Chileans wisely focused on Carménère. Today, Carménère is Chile’s fifth-most planted grape.
Carménère produces an amazing range of flavors, from blackberry and chocolate to green pepper, coffee, and raspberry. It often is both full and smooth in the mouth. Because of its lack of tannins, often it is best drunk young—another reason it is a great value.
If you enjoy Merlot smoothness, taste Carménère as you work toward Cabernet Sauvignon. If you’re a Cab fan, Carménère offers a deliciously smooth change of pace.
Recommendations (all from Chile):
• Concha y Toro Casillero del Diablo Carménère. Fruity, chocolate, coffee. $8
• 120 Santa Rita Carménère. Fresh, light bodied, elegant. $7
• Santa Rita Reserva Carménère. Dark fruit, vanilla, soft tannins, long finish. $10